by Foteini Vlachou (Instituto de História da Arte, Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas, Universidade Nova de Lisboa)
Visual association is not always rational, or even easy to justify. When a friend* sent me Robert W. Chanler’s 1912 work Leopard and Deer, I was immediately reminded of Amadeo de Souza Cardoso’s Os galgos (The greyhounds), as well as the floral background of medieval tapestries, such as La Dame à la licorne series of the Musée de Cluny. What is interesting in this particular juxtaposition is that Chanler and Amadeo share history together as well. They both participated in the legendary Armory Show, the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art. The Armory Show is credited for having introduced modern art to the United States, although a cursory look at some of the artworks present at the exhibition suffices to reveal the incredible versatility, variety and even contradiction of pictorial and plastic styles represented under the qualification of the ‘modern’ (a selection of artworks is available on the excellent site of the Show’s centenary exhibition).
The relationship of the two men extends further. Chanler was among those who bought Amadeo’s works at the Armory Show (see Shannon Vittoria’s short entry “An Unexpected Success“), and both men had studied in Paris. Although Chanler had returned to New York by 1902 (see Megan Fort’s “The Fantastic Robert Winthrop Chanler“), he maintained his ties with Paris, exhibiting at the 1905 Salon d’Automne what was probably his most famous work, Au Pays des Girafes, and also returning (?) to the city to get married in 1910.
The kind of art history that focuses on networks, artists’ sociability, circulations and lived experiences in real places (such as the socio-spatial history undertaken by the Artl@s project focusing on geo-referenced data of exhibitions among other things, or the recently concluded ArtTransForm project that studied transnational artistic education before modernism) could lead to interesting associations, normally difficult to reach through mere stylistic analysis.
Furthermore, the posthumous reception of the work of Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and Robert Chanler presents an ironic analogy: they were both written out of the canonical histories of modernism and the assessments of the impact of the Armory Show. Whereas Amadeo was recognized in Portugal for his importance as a modernist, the country’s peripheral status impeded his integration in the modernist canon (periphery here understood as a structure with distinct traits, and not axiologically determined). He will receive his due in the upcoming 2016 Grand Palais exhibition, but the prejudice associated with a concept of the periphery as retrograde is still remarkably persistent in popular publications, such as the article that appeared in The Art Newspaper, entitled “Forgotten Portuguese Modernist gets Grand Palais show“. Forgotten by whom? The article further calls Lisbon, condescendingly, a “relative backwater”, while the implication of Amadeo’s international recognition as a direct result of being exhibited at the Grand Palais, is that Paris is still the unquestionable center.
In the case of Robert W. Chanler’s work, that has been obscured over time partly by ignorance, or because it is degrading in locations relatively difficult to access (such as the Crow Room mural in the painter’s ancestral home), periphery can still be seen as constituting the main problem. Not a periphery geographically defined (Chanler lived and produced his work for wealthy patrons in New York), but one defined as situated in the margins of the modernist canon. As a muralist and a painter of screens, Chanler’s work exemplifies the tension between the decorative and modern art (and subsequently abstraction), that characterized the writing of much of the history of Western art from the Renaissance onwards. Chanler, although present at the Armory Show, is absent from the history of modernism.
Chanler’s concerns and efforts at plastic expression seem to have been similar to those of other modernists: the construction of an irrational space, the exploration of the textural qualities of the painted surface (see the brilliant Porcupines here below), an interest in medieval art, as well as non-western art forms like screens, even the attempt to bring together art and decoration in an everyday setting (much like the Nabis claimed to do, in a sense) etc. But this is not the place to argue for a re-evaluation of the artist; rather, it is an effort to show that when canonical history has been, by definition, selective and exclusionary, acknowledging (or apologizing for) its omissions will not get us very far. It is the very logic of exclusion that needs to be addressed in the first instance.
* The photographer Gerasimos Mamonas.